Lakers Get a Key Win, Beat Heat : Lead Over Phoenix Is Now One Game With Four to Play

<i> Times Staff Writer</i>

Usually at this time of the season, the Lakers are well into a pre-playoff glide in which occasional losses can be easily sloughed off.

That is no longer a luxury for the Lakers, not with the Phoenix Suns presenting a serious challenge to their Pacific Division domination, which also determines home-court advantage during the Western Conference playoffs.

So even though Sunday night’s Forum opponent was the woeful Miami Heat, there was a strange sense of urgency to the Lakers’ 121-108 victory that returned their lead over the Suns to one game with four to play.


“I think we’re slipping,” Laker Coach Pat Riley said. “We’re definitely not playing our best basketball of the season, but maybe that’s ahead of us.

“It has turned out that this is the most important week of the season. We’ve got to play every game like it’s the playoffs. It’s a different mind-set than we usually have.”

This business of a late-season race is new and vaguely unpleasant to the Lakers. This is the closest any team has come to catching them since the 1981-82 season, when the Seattle SuperSonics finished five games back.

Suddenly, Laker players are hearing such foreign talk as tie-breaking procedures and magic numbers. Starting Sunday, though, they set out to put that to rest simply by winning all their remaining games.

Although it was a victory, and the Lakers (52-25) surely cherish those these days, it was not an altogether inspiring performance. Anything less than a blowout of the Heat cannot be considered an unqualified success.

Those inexplicable Laker lapses were back, this time occuring at the start of the game and at the start of the second half.


But with an inspired effort off the bench from Orlando Woolridge, who had 15 points and five blocked shots, and 24 points from Magic Johnson, who played with an injured right index finger, the Lakers persevered on a night when they still couldn’t shake their late-season laziness.

Johnson said he jammed his finger Saturday night in a collision with the Clippers’ Benoit Benjamin and the ball. But he continued to play and did not tell the Lakers of the injury until arriving at the Forum for Sunday’s game. The finger will be X-rayed today.

“There’s some pain,” he said. “We’ll have to see what the X-ray says.”

About the final week of the regular season, Johnson said: “We just got to approach it with the thinking that every game is a big game. Everything is at stake now. With a challenge, we always come to the forefront. Hopefully, with this challenge, we’ll have a big week.”

The Lakers next play Denver in a home game Tuesday night, then Thursday they play host to the Sacramento Kings before traveling to Portland on Friday night and return home Sunday against Seattle.

“We’ve got to win every one of them,” said Laker guard Byron Scott, who scored 21 points. “Definitely, we are (slipping) in every aspect of our game. Mentally, it is the end of a long season. But, we are a veteran team, and a lot of things that have happened to us shouldn’t have.”

The Heat, blown out in the three previous meetings with the Lakers, actually threatened to win this one. The Heat made its first nine shots of the game en route to an 18-12 lead. That was enough of a slap in the face to awaken the Lakers, who rallied to lead after the first period and built a 14-point lead by halftime.

Then came a more severe third-quarter slump, similar to the one that greatly contributed to Saturday night’s loss to the Clippers. This time, the Lakers commited five turnovers in their first six possessions, which enabled Miami to slash the Lakers’ lead.

Guard Kevin Edwards, who had 27 points, and center Scott Hastings, who had 15 points and six rebounds, led a Heat third-quarter surge in which they outscored the Lakers, 35-26. In the quarter, the Lakers committed nine turnovers. They had 18 for the game.

By the start of the fourth quarter, the Lakers held only a five-point advantage. But then Woolridge, who had been benched for nearly two weeks before Saturday’s game against the Clippers, scored 10 of his 15 points to put away the Heat.

Just two games ago, Riley had said he was committed to a substitution pattern that did not include Woolridge. Apparently, though, it is a coach’s prerogative to change his mind, and it was a good decision by Riley on this night.

“You know you can’t believe me,” Riley quipped when asked about Woolridge. “I thought he played well (Saturday night) when we had three guys in foul trouble, and I saw some good things that we needed tonight. I thought Orlando really gave us a lift.”

Woolridge has enough material strictly from his performances against the Heat to splice together a personal highlight film. His five blocked shots Sunday were a season high. He also had six rebounds and made four of eight shots.

“I’m glad to get the opportunity to go out and play and be a part of what’s happening on the court,” Woolridge said. “I just wanted to learn from the experience (of sitting on the bench).”

The Lakers, it appears, also are learning from this new sensation of being in a divisional race.

Ron Rothstein, Miami’s coach, said he has no doubts about the Lakers’ worth--”Right now, I think they’re a little bored,” he said--but the Lakers finally seem genuinely concerned about Phoenix and the possibility of losing the home-court advantage throughout the Western Conference playoffs.

“We never have had to fight like this fora division championship before, forget about the conference or the semifinals,” Scott said. “We just have to focus on the division right now.”

And this from Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who scored 12 points in 16 minutes on his 42nd birthday: “It’s the same each year. You want to win it, for whatever reasons.”

Laker Notes

Apparently Kareem Abdul-Jabbar’s final regular-season game next Sunday afternoon against Seattle and the ceremony honoring the retiring center will be televised after all, but on a delayed basis by Prime Ticket. The 12:30 game can’t be televised live because CBS chose to show another game, Atlanta-Detroit, at the same time. An announcement is expected today that says Prime Ticket will televise the Laker game on a four-hour delay at 4:30 p.m. and the Abdul-Jabbar ceremony on the pregame show at 4. . . . Abdul-Jabbar celebrated his 42nd birthday Sunday night. His parents, Al and Cora Alcindor, are in town visiting Abdul-Jabbar.

A closer look at the Pacific Division race: Both teams have four games left. The Lakers play three at home, against Denver, Sacramento and Seattle, and on the road Friday night at Portland. Phoenix plays road games at Miami and San Antonio and home games against Sacramento and Houston. In the event of a tie, the first tiebreaker would be the teams’ season series, which they split. The second tiebreaker would be conference winning percentage. The Lakers have a 39-15 record in the Western Conference; the Suns 38-16. The third tiebreaker is record within the Pacific Division. The Lakers are 22-9 and have three games left against divisional teams; the Suns are 22-11 and play only one more game against a divisional team. The fourth tiebreaker would be winning percentage against Western Conference playoff teams. The Lakers are 19-12; the Suns 21-12. And, finally, the fifth tiebreaker would go to the Suns, because they outscored the Lakers, 701-674, in the season series. . . . If the Suns were to finish first, the Lakers would not be the second-seeded team in the Western Conference. The Utah Jazz would be placed second by virtue of winning the Midwest Division. The Lakers would rank third.